Saturday, September 26, 2015

September Notes...

Notes from a Small Country
(with apologies to Bill Bryson)

Our Moldovan home

Добро пожаловать в Молдову!
Well, the hiatus has ended, and tour #2 has now begun.  Incredibly, I’ve been here – on the ground in Moldova – for a month already.  Recently, we also celebrated four years in the Foreign Service.  Truly, I have no idea how this happened.  But here I am, and so:  Welcome to Moldova!

Notes from a Small Country
In 1995, Bill Bryson, one of my favorite authors, published Notes from a Small Island, a volume of stories about the life and people of Great Britain he wrote after twenty years of living there.  (I highly recommend it, by the way.)  I’ll have two years not twenty, and while I’m on an island of sorts, I’m also in a small European country with a rich and interesting history.

Of course there are any number of ways to measure the relative size of a country (by area, population, number of working Ladas per person, like that), but no matter how you measure it, Moldova is a small country.  It’s landlocked (therefore a bit like an island) and sandwiched between Romania to the west and Ukraine to the north, east and south.  A former republic in the old USSR, it declared independence in late August 1991, shortly after the attempted August coup d’état failed to unseat Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. 

One of many old Soviet-model cars
still in use around Chisinau
Moldova in Eastern Europe

As you can see, it’s quite a small country.  Slightly bigger than Belgium and Haiti yet smaller than the island of Taiwan, it sits at about 136th in a ranking of countries by area out of nearly 200 nations.  It was the second smallest republic in the Soviet Union, ahead only of Armenia.  It is slightly larger than the state of Maryland, and the United States is about 290 times bigger.  It’s so small that the mighty Danube River, which is like the Mississippi of western Europe, touches Moldovan soil at the southern border for less than 400 meters, effectively giving the country one water route to the Black Sea, and which is smaller than many actual port facilities in Europe, North America or Asia.

There are about 3.5 million people here, also ranking it around 132nd in the world.  Minnesota has about 5 million, give or take.  Most people are ethnic Slavs, a majority speak Romanian or Moldovan (virtually the same as Romanian) and are Orthodox Christians.  With one of the worlds’ lowest fertility rates and one of the highest negative net migration levels in the world (more people leave than arrive), the overall population is aging and declining.

Chisinau is the capital city and has 750,000 people or so.  Pronunciation of the city in English is a bit problematic, depending upon which language one uses as a base in the first place.  (National language plays kind of a big role here, as you’ll see momentarily.)  If you use Russian as the base (Кишинёв), the city is pronounced like “kee-shi-NYOV,” but if you use Romanian (Chișinău), it’s pronounced “KEE-shi-now.”  Either way, the “ch” at the beginning has a hard “k” sound, and the “s” has a “sh” sound.  It sits at about 47 degrees north latitude, almost the same as Minneapolis-Saint Paul, which is at 45 degrees north latitude.  The climate is roughly the same, too, although with less severe extremes in terms of temperature.

The Republic of Moldova
(CIA World Factbook)

A Frozen Conflict
There is an interesting “frozen conflict” here in an area called Transnistria, a small strip of land between the Dniester River in the east of Moldova and the western border with Ukraine.  It started in the waning years of the Soviet Union when people in the Moldavian Soviet Socialist Republic (as Moldova was known when a state within the USSR) began the discussion about changing the national language from Russian to Moldovan/Romanian.  A group was then formed in Chisinau to protect the interests of the ethnic Russian people in Transnistria as well as the Russian language (sound familiar?), the official language of the Soviet Union.  The war of words, general strikes and competing legislative efforts (like the declaration on August 31, 1989 by the Supreme Council of the MSSR that Moldovan would now be the official language) continued to escalate, meaning confrontation was perhaps inevitable.  As the MSSR began enacting more and more laws and policies indicating an equally inevitable split from the USSR, like a new flag, a new name for the country (the Republic of Moldova) and a declaration of sovereignty (meaning Moldovan laws were to supersede Soviet laws), periodic fighting began, and continued as a low-grade conflict from autumn 1989 until March 1992.  Complicating things, more factions arose (like a group advocating unification between Moldova and Romania, and decisions by local authorities in Transnistria for the local police to ignore the government in Chisinau and obey only their orders), and that low-grade conflict became full-scale war on March 2, 1992, the same day the United Nations formally recognized Moldova’s declaration of independence from August 27, 1991.

With support from several former Soviet Republics and some remnants of the Soviet Red Army, Transnistrian authorities, armed separatists and volunteers battled with Moldovan police and a nascent national army supported by arms and advisors from Romania for just over four months in three principal locations along the Dniester River.  Something in the neighborhood of a thousand soldiers, police and civilians were killed during the war, until a cease fire was agreed to in July 1992.  This is a frozen conflict because it is this cease fire which remains in force, and a Joint Control Commission under the auspices of the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) is now the peacekeeping force maintaining the status quo in a kind of buffer between the two nations.  Technically a demilitarized zone, the force is made up of about 1,300 Russian regular Army troops as well as several hundred soldiers each from Moldova, Ukraine and Transnistria.  Russia has agreed periodically to return munitions and soldiers back to the Motherland over the years, but those 1,300 or so will remain until the conflict is finally resolved.

Flag of Transnistria

Coincidentally, I arrived in Moldova on Independence Day (August 27), and what was to be my first day in the office was a national holiday, National Language Day (August 31).

Жизнь и Pабота – Life and Work
One month into a two-year tour is not very significant, but in my short time here I have done and observed a few things.

Firstly, our house is super cool.  Three bedrooms, hardwood floors throughout (with beautiful parquet floors in the living room), a nice-sized enclosed yard with a dozen or so fruit trees (apple, plum, sweet as well as sour cherries), a number of nice gardens (with a preexisting strawberry patch) and our very own mature grape vines are some highlights.  Moldova’s economy is dominated by agriculture, and that sector is dominated by wine production.  So far I’ve been very satisfied with the quality of wine available, and for very reasonable prices!  Did I mention we have our very own wine cellar?  No?  Well we do!  And a colleague mentioned recently that he felt we had the best private wine cellar he’d seen other than the Ambassador’s.  So that’s cool.  I feel as if our time here will be a constant struggle between filling the wine cellar and emptying it.  This house seems made for hosting parties, which we fully intend to do, so come join us and make use of those extra rooms and get ready to help us deplete our wine stocks!

The House!

About ten minutes’ walk from here is a nice little grocery store / market called Linella, and while small, it has a good assortment of high quality groceries and fresh fruits and vegetables.  It has a proper deli, meat section and has nice quality breads, as well as a little wine and beer selection.  (I bought a nice bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon the other day and it cost about $4.)  It’s small, but once I have access to my car there are a number of other, larger grocery stores around town, including a French-owned market in the creatively-named shopping center called “Malldova.”

Last year I read a little book called Playing the Moldovans at Tennis in anticipation of my move to Chisinau.  It was a light hearted, humorous travel book that didn’t always paint a very flattering picture of the national capital:  city streets without lighting at night and missing manhole covers on the same were a high, or rather low, light.  (I can imagine that would be a rather, um, interesting combination to experience.)  Moldova is a poor country, but clearly progress has been made on several fronts, at least in the infrastructure within Chisinau.

I have yet to get out and explore the country itself, but have been around the capital a bit and I have to say I’m rather impressed.  It’s not Vienna or Washington, and it’s certainly not Minneapolis, but it’s a nice, compact little city.  Roads are paved, some are even reasonably lit at night, there are quite a few decent restaurants, and I have yet to encounter a missing manhole cover.  Sidewalks exist along some streets, although sometimes they just disappear or are in rough shape, and occasionally they are obstructed by any number of unexpected things as I discovered my first week here when I smacked into a billboard right a forehead level.  Streets in the city are often leafy and green, and while there is some trash littered about, it’s not at levels like I experienced in Port-au-Prince. 

The View Restaurant at the Hotel Nobil
Of course this is not to say that Moldova doesn’t have its issues.  Like any country or individual, we’re all works in progress, advancing or retreating as the occasion warrants.  Moldova is a parliamentary democracy, and there have been struggles with governing effectively since independence.  There was a recent two- or three-year period where the country was without a government (no, no, not like that; no candidate in Parliament could gain a majority of support from among its members in order to form a ruling coalition), and this past summer a 28-year-old businessman and banker was accused and then arrested on suspicion of illegally transferring – wait for it – almost a billion dollars from three Moldovan banks over the course of two days.  This is roughly 12% of the nation’s annual GDP, which, if you didn’t already guess, is a lot.  The Moldovan Central Bank was then forced to bail out the three banks to the tune of $870 million dollars in emergency loans in order to keep the economy from collapsing.  Estimated total losses could reach the $1 billion mark.

A report detailing the alleged theft was released and later published after the public got wind of what happened, and the accused businessman – Ilan Shor, one of the richest people in the country who is married to a Russian pop star (of course he is!) – was charged with corruption and placed under house arrest during the subsequent investigation.  Then, a van transporting critical investigative documents was “mysteriously” stolen and was later found to have been destroyed by a fire.  He was given immunity during his house arrest as he was also, coincidentally, a candidate for mayor of a small town about 25 miles north of Chisinau, which – of course – he won with 62% of the vote this past June.  He’s now the mayor of Orhei, and is evidently more popular now than ever before as he arranges to have this city of 25,000 completely electrified with street lights and high efficiency LED bulbs.  You can check it out right here:

One result of these massive losses to the Moldovan economy and the corruption at the root of many ills in society is that popular protests have been organized just about every weekend over the past few months, with tens of thousands of people gathering and marching in the city center to demand the resignation of the government and an end of rule by the oligarchs.  Fortunately, they have all been peaceful.  So far.  This, too, is a work in progress.

Moldova is one of the poorest countries in Europe (GDP per capita is about $5,000 per year, or 171st in the world) and 1/8th of their GDP just vanished, virtually overnight.  They are energy dependent, mostly on Russian oil and gas, and a large percentage (totaling about $1.6 billion) of their national income is from remittances that come from family living and working abroad.  Several local colleagues have shared with me that, despite the relative poverty of the country, there are more Porsche Cayennes in this country than anywhere else in the world.  And while I don’t know about the veracity of that startling observation, there certainly are quite a lot of luxury cars driving about in town.  On a trip home recently I saw, in short order, a Bentley and a variety of high-end BMWs, Mercedes and Audis, often with darkened windows and zooming along past the babushkas and pedestrians struggling to make their way on the sidewalks and zipping in and out of traffic on streets filled with packed city buses and taxis.

Like I said, a work in progress.

Doing the People’s Work
All that being said, it’s not all play and no work.  I am here to do a job, after all.

The Embassy itself is very different from Haiti.  In Port-au-Prince all agencies were housed in one NEC (New Embassy Compound), opened in 2008 and like a modern office building with loads of extra security.  Hundreds of people worked there, and we had several annexes and other buildings on the grounds, along with a small swimming pool, the Marine House (a dormitory for the Marine Corps Security Guards), and a regulation basketball court.  The Embassy in Chisinau is 115-year-old former ballet school.  Of course we have lots of security and all that, and several out-buildings made from converted containers and mobile structures which have essentially become permanent buildings, but several agencies are housed in other buildings in town, and while we, too, have a couple hundred people, it’s not nearly the size of Haiti.  There we had something like 200 direct hire Americans, here we have about 40.

US Embassy - Moldova

As in Haiti, I am working as a Consular Officer performing visa interviews, helping American citizens, and conducting the business of the United States here in this little corner of Europe.

I’ve detailed my job as a Consular Officer before, based on my tour in Haiti.  (In the event you’ve forgotten, and care, you can go here to refresh your memory.)  In the Consulate in Haiti we had 15 Entry Level Officers, five managers, a Deputy Consul General and a Consul General, along with about 50 or more locally hired colleagues. In Moldova we have a Consul (my boss), me (and Entry Level Officer), an American citizen colleague who is trained to adjudicate visas, and five local staff.  The work is very similar, but the volume is much, much lower and of course the issues are different, as they are in every country.  Whereas in Haiti Officers worked months at a time in a particular unit (Non-Immigrant Visas, Immigrant Visas, American Citizen Services, Adoptions and Fraud Prevention) doing just the work of that unit, here we rotate essentially every day between NIV, IV and ACS, and do adoption work and fraud work as needed.  For example, in Haiti each Officer in the NIV unit (typically five on a given day) conducted between 70 and 100 interviews, every day, for several months at a time.  Here we have between 50 and 75 interviews each day, divided between two officers.  So the pace isn’t as frenetic as it was in Haiti, and for that I am grateful.

Something similar to my transition to Haiti with my French training in a country where few people spoke French on a day to day basis is the language barrier I’m experiencing again.  I received six months of intensive Russian training in preparation for this post, however upon arrival I discover – no, it’s not really a surprise – that the ability to speak about global warming or international relations between Moldova and the United States isn’t what I really need to be able to discuss when interviewing a young IT professional or Moldovan farmer from the village for a tourist visa.  In addition, I would say more than half the people speak Romanian more so than Russian.  To be sure both are present in shops, on signs and in the community in general, but it seems more common for people to speak Romanian in the home than Russian.  Up until now, and into the near future, I’m relying heavily on the translation assistance of my Moldovan colleagues.  I start Russian classes again soon, this week I hope, so as to eventually be able to do the principal part of my job without assistance.

I will have a chance to do more things outside the scope of my work in the Consulate than I did in Haiti, which will be nice.  Given that I am what amounts to a deputy to my boss the Consul, I have more responsibility within the job itself than I did in Haiti.  Also, recently I helped out at the welcome reception at the Ambassador’s residence for the newly arrived DCM (Deputy Chief of Mission), and met some interesting diplomats from the Ukrainian and other embassies as well as other organizations.  The Consulate hosted a lunch the next week for our American citizen “wardens” who live around Moldova, also at the Ambassador’s residence, and again I met some fellow Americans who have some really interesting stories to tell.

So it’s been a pretty good start, I must say.

The Impending Arrivals
I am so looking forward to the arrival of my partner in crime and our International Dog of Mystery in mid-October.

Perhaps comparable to the day I departed Minnesota for training in Washington back in August 2011, the day I left Minnesota for Moldova was one of the most difficult days I have ever experienced.  It’s hard enough to go through much less describe, but the closest description I can think of is that this is what it must feel like to experience a broken heart.  Of course it’s just temporary, and in large part is my way of dealing with the process of mourning the major transitions occurring in the lives of the kids at the same time as I’m leaving the country, but it was heart wrenching to walk through the security gates and wave goodbye to my Team.  My flights from Minnesota to Amsterdam to Barcelona to Chisinau were the longest 24 hours in my life.

But Kate and Riley the Wonder Dog are coming in just a couple short weeks, and she hopes to get a part-time job at the Embassy working in the Community Liaison office.  The kids of course are and will be doing what they should be doing, which is to continue on the path to independence and adulthood.  And so that is as it should be.

Sophie is in the midst of her third year at Gustavus, and after switching her major last year to history she spent the summer in Washington, D.C. with me while interning at the National Archives, which was pretty darn cool.  She’ll spend the spring on a semester abroad in Italy, which is pretty close to Moldova, kind of.  So I’m looking forward to regular visits to Perujia to annoy, I mean visit, her.

Tommy graduated from Gustavus last spring, and cajoled me into participating in a sprint triathlon with him in Maryland last July.  He graciously kept my pace for all three legs, and in the end we had a good old time.  He has been preparing all summer and fall for his impending departure in October for boot camp outside of Chicago as he begins the next stage of his journey with the US Navy.

As you might be able to tell, we are immensely proud of them both.

Coincidence? Perhaps…
Strangely, I realized recently there are some rather odd connections between Moldova and Haiti, and it’s not that they are both relatively poor nations (although that is true).  In Haiti our house number was #30; in Moldova it’s #30A.  Hmmm, curious.  Then I remembered that Haiti managed an unlikely defeat of the powerful but weakened French army led by Napoleon Bonaparte in the early 1800s, and that the territory that is Moldova today was ceded by the Ottoman Turks to the Russian Empire in July 1812, just a month after Napoleon invaded Russia.  Six months later Russia defeated the mighty French.  History is replete with French military defeats – wonder if one of them will indicate the location of Tour #3?  Hopefully it won't be Elba or St. Helena…

Until next time
Well, if you made it this far, you’ve wasted another 30 minutes or so of your time with me, and for that I thank you.  It's not exactly the easiest place to get to on the planet, but we have the space available, and of course we have a wine cellar!  We will be happy to welcome visitors at any time to our little corner of Europe...

While still in a state of transition, life is good.  Hoping the same for you.

I want you to visit us in Moldova!!


  1. Hello Dave- I came across your blog recently and was deeply interested in knowing more about your life as a foreign service officer! I am currently in the twin cities and have been studying for the first step of becoming an officer (i.e. the EXAM). I am a recent graduate and have found myself deeply interested in global politics, foreign policy, and of course the framework for america- the constitution. However, I would find it extremely valuable to be able to speak with you about your experience as an officer and the type of lifestyle you lead. If there is any way this is possible (via email,phone,blog) I would be so greatly appreciative.
    Thank you for your informative and humorous blogs :-) and I find myself very lucky to have come across someone who may be able to give advice and tips for my future as an officer representing our great country!
    - Charlotte (Stillwater, MN)

  2. Hello Dave- I came across your blog recently and was deeply interested in knowing more about your life as a foreign service officer! I am currently in the twin cities and have been studying for the first step of becoming an officer (i.e. the EXAM). I am a recent graduate and have found myself deeply interested in global politics, foreign policy, and of course the framework for america- the constitution. However, I would find it extremely valuable to be able to speak with you about your experience as an officer and the type of lifestyle you lead. If there is any way this is possible (via email,phone,blog) I would be so greatly appreciative.
    Thank you for your informative and humorous blogs :-) and I find myself very lucky to have come across someone who may be able to give advice and tips for my future as an officer representing our great country!
    - Charlotte (Stillwater, MN)

    1. Hi Charlotte - thanks for the note. Happy to help; if the process hasn't changed too much, I've written about my experiences going through the FSO wringer on this blog; check out posts from 2009 and 2010. Feel free to contact me anytime via email if you want to get more specifics: davepanetti at hotmail dot com.